In recent times, there have been multiple incidences of apartment cladding fires around the world. This has brought this important issue into the spotlight, and it is particularly important to know if you live in an apartment, as most city dwellers do.
In Australia, strict cladding regulations have now come into effect. New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have all declared that combustible cladding material such as polymers in aluminium composite panels are completely banned from use in construction.
Builders and owners of buildings have become more aware of the problem, and the Australian government’s cladding audit continues to identify these issues nationwide, but what can you do in the meantime to keep your apartment safe?
Apartment Cladding Details
First of all, it’s important to know what apartment cladding is, and its role in the construction of any building. All buildings, regardless of how many storeys they are, will have some form of cladding.
The primary use of apartment cladding is to provide thermal insulation and weather resistance. A secondary use of apartment cladding is as a design tool to make buildings more aesthetically pleasing.
Cladding can be made of a large range of materials, including wood, metal, brick, and vinyl. Additionally, it is common these days for cladding to be made of composite materials – various combinations of materials including aluminium, wood, cement, wheat fibres and even recycled polystyrene.
What is combustible cladding?
The cladding materials itself is the main cause of apartment cladding fires. Materials like brick, cement, steel, aluminium, and recycled timber are all extremely fire resistant, so if your apartment cladding is made of these materials, you do not have to worry.
Unfortunately, the flammable cladding that caught on fire in the recent apartment cladding fires were known to have been made of composite materials that made a particularly combustible mix. Composite cladding is made of a thin layer of material that acts as a core, which is sandwiched between aluminium sheets. Aluminium composite panels with polyethylene cores are the main culprit in recent apartment fires, as polyethylene is a type of polymer that is highly flammable.
In addition to the materials of apartment cladding, another factor that contributes to apartment cladding fire is how it is constructed. If the combustible core is on fire, the heat-conducive aluminium that contains it will increase the heat of the entire panel.This will, in turn, cause the core material to melt, causing the fire to flow downwards. The cavities between the cladding panel and building walls will spread the smoke and fire upwards. Meanwhile, the side-by-side aluminium panels will conduct the fire sideways.
You can see how quickly a fire can spread to an entire apartment building in this manner.
How do you know if your apartment has safe cladding?
Depending on whether you are an owner or tenant, you can speak to your rental manager or owners corporation to find out if your apartment cladding has been audited, and if it has, ask for the results.
If it turns out that your building has not been audited yet, you can ask them to request building documents – including permits and drawings – from your local council, as this could provide more information about the building materials used in your apartment complex.
What is the future of apartment cladding?
There are a lot of alternatives out there that provide builders with different options for safe apartment cladding.
Obviously, traditionally fire-resistant materials are always a good option, and that includes brick, cement, steel, aluminium, and recycled timber.
In addition to that option, aluminium panels can still be an affordable and lightweight option, provided it does not contain a polymer core. A fire-safe option in this case would be aluminium panels with an aluminium honeycomb core.
Another great option is green walls, because a well-maintained green wall is fire-safe and also aesthetically pleasing. Since maintaining a living green wall can be a labour and cost-intensive option, artificial green walls are becoming a popular option. Designer Plants has recently released a new range of fire-tested green walls, a new generation of greenery known as “Select”. These artificial plants have been tested independently for fire and ignition.
Fire safety checklist
Regardless of the materials used in your apartment cladding, it is important to be well-versed in fire prevention so you can be well-prepared in case of a fire. Here is a checklist you can use as a guideline for your protection against fires:
- Familiarise yourself with your apartment building’s fire escape plan. You can request a copy from your owner’s corporation.
- Know where the nearest fire exits, fire stairs and firefighting equipment are located on your floor.
- Make a fire escape plan for yourself and anyone living with you. Always have a Plan B in place as well. A pre-arranged safe meeting place should also be included in the plan. Go over this plan periodically to make sure everyone is aware of what to do in the event of a fire.
- Test smoke alarms in your apartment monthly, and give them a regular clean to make sure dust doesn’t block the detectors. Smoke alarms can save your life by giving you ample warning to put your escape plan into action.
- Invest in a fire blanket, and or fire extinguisher for an affordable option to help fight or extinguish any unexpected fires in your apartment or home.
- Always maintain escape routes and firefighting equipment
- Keep all firefighting equipment clear of obstructions. Never store items in fire equipment cupboards or anywhere that could make is more difficult to procure in an emergency.
- Never prop or wedge open fire or smoke doors because these are designed to stop the spread of smoke and fire. There’s a reason that they always have a sign that says it should always be closed!
- Make sure corridors and staircases are completely clear, as they can obstruct your escape route and also make it more difficult and dangerous for firefighters.
All commentary in our articles, websites and blogs are not to be relied upon in making any decisions whatsoever. Independent advice should be sought from a qualified professional.